Roundtable: Obamacare Lurches Forward; Alarm Over Fire Alarms; Age Discrimination At NCTD
October 25, 2013 1:13 p.m.
Megan Burks, KPBS News
JW August, 10News
Brad Racino, inewsource
Related Story: Roundtable: Obamacare Lurches Forward; Alarm Over Fire Alarms; Age Discrimination At NCTD
MARK SAUER: I am Mark Sauer. KPBS Roundtable starts now. Welcome. It's Friday, October 25. Joining me is Brad Racino, Megan Burks, and JW August. With government shut down over for now, Republicans are seizing on website glitches, their latest move to derail Obamacare. Inability to login and lengthy delays, and other problems have plagued the website since it opened. Republicans are delighted to capitalize on the frustrations consumers have had, and even several Democrats are criticizing the administration's botched rollout. In California this situation is different. Megan, let's start with the online problem. What are some of the problems there?
MEGAN BURKS: There are fifty-five contractors that the government hired to put this together. They each had their own puzzle piece and tried to put them together, but they didn't step back and look at it. Now the contractors are pointing at the guy at the front of the line. You have to give them all of this information in that process, and that created a bottleneck that slowed the process.
MARK SAUER: Administration got a bit of a break because focus was on this shutdown and attention was turned to that. How long do they have to fix this?
MEGAN BURKS: As a practical matter, a lot. Reports are saying they have until December 15. That is true. It is a little misleading. You can register up until March, and still skip fines. They should get this together as soon as possible.
MARK SAUER: In the past hour there was a report ñ they have a long list ñ but they will it have done in a month. They are doing it one at a time and it will be done by November. That is not the situation in California, right?
MEGAN BURKS: They had stumbled early on, they even closed in the first day. They are still closing it on weekends, and fixing it on weekends. Overall it has been a much more smooth process here, and they have enrolled 16,000 Californians. It's doing better here.
MARK SAUER: Let us make distinction that this is one of several state exchanges compared to the federal government.
MEGAN BURKS: California is only responsible for enrolling one state. The federal government is responsible for thirty-six states. It is muddled on the federal side.
JW AUGUST: It's much ado about nothing. Tremendous undertaking. We're going somewhere we have never gone before. What is the impatience about? It will happen. It's just the nature due to the size of this. You have all of these elements to put together, it's going to happen when you do that.
MARK SAUER: I have read a number of historical accounts going back to the days of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and I saw a similar thing. I saw there was always political opposition.
MEGAN BURKS: There is a great new New York Times article that shows that a large proportion of government contracts actually fail. It happens. I do not remember the exact number, but less than half. Very high-profile projects that have failed.
JW AUGUST: Any computer systems have fallen off the face at some point, like DMV and superior courts. It's not that easy.
MEGAN BURKS: They hold contracts everywhere. Several with California, in Los Angeles, and in a year ago they signed a contract with San Diego. They are doing a lot of projects that are not failing.
MARK SAUER: About the City of San Diego, what has come up here?
MEGAN BURKS: Not much, I called IT and they are not concerned. This contract is fairly new. They have not developed anything new.
JW AUGUST: What is this for?
MEGAN BURKS: They are overseeing some of things like payroll, whether potholes are being filled, if permits are getting through the system, they are just maintaining status quo.
JW AUGUST: Whoever is Mayor will fix potholes.
MARK SAUER: Every Monday here you have spent quite some time doing second opinion. Tell us about that.
MEGAN BURKS: We embarked on this a few months ago taking questions from residents of San Diego. The questions have been what does the law say for me? We just started the rollout process, the question has been what do I need to know about that? What am I eligible for, fines, covering employees, etc.?
MARK SAUER: For example we have this question:
NEW SPEAKER: How will my benefits be affected? Do I have other insurance companies that I need to deal with?
MARK SAUER: That is your question. What is your response?
MEGAN BURKS: We have had a lot of people who are happy to have a place to ask these questions. They ask specific questions, and I hunt down specific answers. I am digging up answers for them now.
MARK SAUER: In California, about 7 million people are underinsured. About 50%.
MEGAN BURKS: To be successful, California has to be a front runner. I think the California is seen as a front runner and so we must put our money where our mouth is.
MARK SAUER: How many people have signed up in California so far?
MEGAN BURKS: In the first week there were 16,000, but they have stopped releasing figures. We've only seen the number of people who go in and start applications. That is over 125,000, but that can also include people like me who go in and give information for a source. These are not necessarily people signing up, just kind of window shopping.
JW AUGUST: People are just going to check it out.
MARK SAUER: People get frustrated.
MEGAN BURKS: A lot of Californians have already window shopped. There is not the curiosity anymore.
MARK SAUER: We have a lot more information on this on the KPBS.org website. Now let's turn to a story about the Sweetwater Union High School District. Three-hundred fire alarms in the schools were not functioning. The stories prompted investigations by two fire departments. JW August, tell us what you found out.
JW AUGUST: Sources within the school districts were troubled that the district was spending Prop O money on football fields and turf and gyms, but they had a great number of alarms that were not operating. Entire systems that needed to be replaced.
MARK SAUER: Hundreds of millions of state money that must be used for ñ
JW AUGUST: For safety. It had been relegated to the bottom. I'm not sure who made the decision. They were not doing the right things with the money.
MARK SAUER: Walk us through how those alarms are checked.
JW AUGUST: Most people think the Fire Marshal walks the schoolgrounds. They don't. They trust the school district to hire an independent contractor to work toward this goal. Then they report to the Fire Marshal. The problem is, it's about trust. You would trust the school district to tell the Fire Marshal what is going on, but that is not the case.
MARK SAUER: What did they find?
JW AUGUST: We did a freedom of information request and we looked into twenty-nine schools, and except for very new ones there were all kinds of problems. Strobe lights and fire alarms and heat detectors not working. Actual classrooms, all across the board.
MARK SAUER: Is this unusual? Two other districts have to have this kind of monitoring?
JW AUGUST: I talked to the State Fire Marshal, out of Sacramento. To tell you the truth, it's a political hot potato. The whole system is built on trust, but if you have districts like Sweetwater, I would be concerned if I lived in the district. I would start looking. Sweetwater has eaten up all of my time, I have not looked at others.
MARK SAUER: To asking them more about the district, what is the response.?
JW AUGUST: Everything is in compliance, we have no issues.
MARK SAUER: How do they square that up?
JW AUGUST: You got me, that's how the folks at Sweetwater do it. Just ignore it. If we weren't so screwed up, we would have to walk the halls of the school, see if alarms are up. The first thing I got out of the investigative report from National City Fire, they said we want you to walk the hallways.
MARK SAUER: Give us some background on this. Until this matter is fixed you have to do this manually?
JW AUGUST: Right, they actually walk the hallways and checked trash bins, anywhere where fire can start. Their job is to make sure that when fire starts they help people. It sounds very serious. There are three different fire departments overlapping down there. It's a huge district.
MARK SAUER: National City took the bull by the horns?
JW AUGUST: Yes and Chula Vista is also investigating. San Diego Fire immediately sent the Fire Marshal to the schools. But, they only have a couple of schools.
MARK SAUER: What is the timetable on that? Will they come back with a report?
JW AUGUST: We just got from National City the results of their investigation. They give the district a hard time for not taking care of business. We are waiting on Chula Vista.
MEGAN BURKS: It reminds me Prop O money going towards ìsexierî projects like the football fields. It reminds me of the city of city in San Diego, not maintaining the streets because they are paving a street that does not have cracks in it. Do you get the sense that it's just because it was not as fun to tell the community?
JW AUGUST: Yes you nailed it. Everybody says the same thing, we go for the for the glitter. They can't see fire alarms not working but they can see a football field.
MARK SAUER: What about parents, how have the parents responded to this?
BRAD RACINO: Sweetwater has denied it every time. A lot of people were not sure whether they believe this or not. We have had issues with public trust. It took a while, but my feel is that it's growing. We have some parents that are very concerned.
MARK SAUER: Aren't there deadlines to fix this?
JW AUGUST: Immediately.
BRAD RACINO: How much money are we talking about?
JW AUGUST: Two issues, the alarms are malfunctioning in this and some schools need new systems put in. Prop O was supposed to take care of that. That can run as much as $2 million. Still cheaper than a new football field with turf.
BRAD RACINO: And cheaper than lawsuits.
JW AUGUST: They have suddenly the oversight committee for Prop O telling us that they did not hear anything about alarms. Suddenly it's very much a topic with the district. They are paying attention.
MARK SAUER: What are the consequences of missing these deadlines?
JW AUGUST: No consequences. The good thing is, if there has been fire, there have been false alarms. It was, these kids came home at Eastlake high, and in the morning the class heard the voice of the speakers saying disregard the alarms, it's a false alarm. The students did not hear the alarm. At lunch time they started talking about, they found out that one part of the school heard the alarm in one part did not work if you had some sort of disaster ñ
MARK SAUER: The liability on that. We will leave it there. We will have more work reports is the follow-up. North County Transit District and Chief Executive Officer Matt Tucker has been under scrutiny. The districts on the internal review found rampant inefficiencies. Mountains of paperwork and far too many contracts. Inefficient and ineffective methods are leaving the district at risk. Brad Racino will now continue with the new issue.
BRAD RACINO: The story this week details what a lot of our sources of called the war on women. We've been reporting on this for ten months. I have lots of sources who have all said the same thing. Their allegations are that NCTD and Matt Tucker have been targeting older female employees, firing and replacing them with more attractive female replacements. Recently last month there was lawsuit filed by HR, which detailed all of this in a lawsuit. We talked to another woman who went on to record, detailing this along with men and women that we have talked about this.
MARK SAUER: We will get into the specifics of that this is a violation of state law correct?
BRAD RACINO: That is correct. It's gender discrimination and age discrimination. Virginia was misspoken for, according to her lawsuit and her lawyer, what happened was that she recognized that this was going on. She brought it to the attention of Matt Tucker and pointed out this is violation of NCTD policy and violation of state law. She claims she was retaliated against and claims in her lawsuit that it was ignored and later retaliated against and she was let go. She is suing for multiple reasons.
MARK SAUER: Go ahead Jim.
JW AUGUST: How was he able to withstand this. That is outrageous behavior. How was he able to get away with this? Who are his friends here?
BRAD RACINO: Can't speak to that, all I can say is that in the lawsuit they specifically say the lawyer writes that someone is protecting this guy. His supervisors are the Board of Directors. All of them are publicly elected officials from different cities in the county. As far as how this works I can't tell.
MARK SAUER: We're talking about the lawsuit saying older female workers are being laid off in favor of younger more attractive ones. On our website KPBS.org, you have photos that are rather dramatic, characterized for listeners who will see what we're talking about.
BRAD RACINO: Yes we found women in top positions affected as a direct result of these actions. They are all over forty, female, and not unattractive but older. When he compared to women who replace them ñ we could not get exact person per per person ñ but it's rather striking.
MARK SAUER: We touched on this, do the board members know about this?
BRAD RACINO: Alike can say is another former employee Kim Stone filed a lawsuit last year with similar allegations that were brought to the board's attention. Angela Miller, former Chief Information Officer wrote in her resignation a very long detailed list of everything that she saw going on the agency. She specifically pointed out a culture of bullying and harassment. She sent that to the board. Nothing happened. This lawsuit, however, has their attention. Also Heidi Rocky. She mentioned many times that she brought things internally who brought it up to Tucker and the board, and you would think that over the last two years something would be done.
JW AUGUST: And HR must know where other skeletons are buried.
BRAD RACINO: There are a lot of confidentiality loopholes. We have a lot of sources but they're all kept down by confidentiality agreements. We have caught flak a little bit for not naming them, but we cannot do that.
MARK SAUER: See you've reported as on other big problems that this North County Transit District has poor safety and business practices.
BRAD RACINO: Before it has been nonstop. We started in February, with untrained security officers. When you look at this, these are the first line of defense for this. They are giving millions of dollars to a company that was not training these officers. All of the things that they needed to have done. After that, we found more things that were wrong. The audit ñ it found so many things wrong ñ nineteen deficiencies in that department. Then we covered their email changing policy. A commuter train was shut down, the Sprinter was shut down for worn brakes. The engineer had known about this, knew it weeks before telling the public. They eventually shut it down. It was shut down for a long time.
MARK SAUER: Shine the light on the problems. A little bit of the scope on this. Why should the public care about this, how much funding goes into this?
BRAD RACINO: A lot. $91 million is the budget this year. They have capital budget of half 1 billion. They have a lot of things happening up there, that directly affect the public. Not to mention safety, you have buses and light rails, a lot of commuters that use their services daily. All of these things that we have found directly tie in to those aspects.
MARK SAUER: What kinds of response are you getting from readers?
BRAD RACINO: Readers have been positive. Here we have a lot of people come out. A few people have questions regarding the photos. We have only had one really negative comment, and we traced the IP to North County District headquarters.
MARK SAUER: We are thankful you're doing the stories. I'm sure he will be doing many more stories as we go forward. Will that wraps up another week of stories at KPBS Roundtable. I would like to thank Megan Burks, JW August, and Brad Racino.